10. St. Vincent – Masseduction
Annie Clark’s fifth album as St. Vincent made a splash with listeners this year by being a bit of a surprise. Masseduction at first glance is slightly smaller in scope or experimental ambition than the Grammy-winning St. Vincent, but what it does to evolve Clark’s sound is fascinating, and most importantly, fun. Clark created an album to primarily speak about modern love, sex, drugs and rock and of course she finds fresh ways to write about those familiar subjects. The standout tracks are the singles “Los Ageless” and “New York,” the reference to opposite coastal cities reflecting the two contrasting looks at love the songs give you: intoxicating attraction, and helpless heartbreak. Those tracks and the infusion of pop in songs like “Pills” and “Young Lover” brush up against funky tracks like “Masseduction” and “Savior,” creating a unique sound and texture that only an artist like Clark could produce. – Beth Winchester
9. The xx – I See You
On their third studio album, the British alt-R&B trio crystallize their sound into their first truly-cohesive experience. Equal parts gothic and romantic, I See You is the soundtrack for every doomed meet cute at a modern-day house party complete with jungle-drum dance grooves (“Dangerous”), plucked guitar strings echoing into the night (“Replica”) and Hall & Oates repurposed for millenial breakup anthems (“On Hold”). Not only is producer Jamie xx’s production fine-tuned into gorgeous atmosphere, but The xx also shines from the chemistry between Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft. The two singers are excellent vocalists playing off of each other on songs like “Lips,” where two hopeless romantics ach for intimacy but are too afraid to speak first. Love is the tender trap, and The xx know the warning signs better than most. – Jon Winkler
8. Harry Styles – Harry Styles
Releasing his first solo album since leaving One Direction, Harry Styles stunned us all this year with his self-titled album. Styles had always showcased his vocals while a part of his quintessential boy band, but he really proved his worth outside of a group. We were introduced to a grungier, more rock side that we hadn’t seen emerge until now. Constant guitar coupled with crooning vocals led to the perfect mix that seemed to depart from Styles’ pop roots. It was within this self-discovery and our anticipation for the new music that we were able to appreciate songs like “Sign of the Times” and “Two Ghosts” for solely Harry Styles. He was able to carry on with the fame from One Direction while heading his own direction and giving us good music that wasn’t too light or fluffy. The down-to- earth and gritter aspects are what really made this album so fantastic. – Reagan Harrison
7. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
‘When things are good, the music is better’ Lana Del Rey told Pitchfork in July, in a stand against the frequently held belief that angst and despair make for better and more personal music. A surge in personal optimism certainly seems to have made all the difference to Lust For Life, her best album to date. In a deliberate move away from that old love-as-Ultraviolence schtick, fun is to be found around every corner here. She sounds delighted to be alive and working in an industry that has produced so many of the great artists that she constantly references on the album: Iggy Pop, The Angels, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young all get lyrical nods; Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Amy Winehouse are vocally evoked. ‘Isn’t life crazy?’ she opines about singing with Sean Lennon, and her duets with Stevie Nicks and The Weeknd sound equally elated.
Quite a few critics have criticised the presence of so many guest stars on Lust for Life, but I believe they’re crucial to the overall effect of seeking to dispel darkness from every corner of life, as they evoke the beauty of friendship and collaboration in a divisive time. Not even Donald Trump can ruin the party atmosphere here: ‘Is it the end of an era?/Is it the end of America?’ Rey worries on the album’s most political track, before bravely responding with ‘No, it’s only the beginning.’ I hope this also proves the beginning, and not the end, of a new era for this fascinating pop chanteuse, one in which her endlessly mysterious and fascinating contralto can be used to illuminate the complexities and compromises of being alive rather than simply picking apart romantic feelings of nihilistic despair, as she’s tended towards in the past. Back in 2014, she sang: ‘I look pretty when I cry.’ Lust for Life is here to prove that she looks, and sounds, a whole lot prettier when she smiles – Oliver Hollander.
6. Kesha – Rainbow
The ordeal that Kesha has gone through from her legal horrors with Dr. Luke and the arc of redemption that culminates in the release of Rainbow is, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, the most important story in music in 2017. And yes, after such a traumatic journey, anything that Miss Sebert released this year would come with an aura of triumph, but what a lesson of humility we have taken after listening to this portentous record. With a variety of sounds ranging from pop-punk (“Let Them Talk”), to Country-Soul (:Woman”, with the always amazing Dap-Kings Horns) and then to the total spiritual confrontation (“Praying”), Kesha tells us how Hell was like, and how she came back from it, transformed into someone undoubtedly stronger than you and me. She is the absolute winner of 2017, and Rainbow is a fitting victory march. – Leonel Manzanares
5. Paramore – After Laughter
After Laughter finds Paramore reinventing themselves once more. The new wave influences that always seemed to be bubbling under the surface on their records completely consumes their sound on the record. The style perfectly meshes with the lyrical content on finding optimism even the most dire situations, themes that dominated both the album and the band’s lives as they geared up to record. For the second time in their career, Paramore were caught up in the acrimonious departure of a member only to rebound back with an incredible work (and reuniting with co-founding drummer Zac Farro along the way). While Hayley Williams is still the star of the show and her powerful voice and witty lyrics dominate songs like “Hard Times” and “Rose-Colored Boy”, much can also be said about Taylor York’s quirky, prickly guitar lines and Farro’s propulsive drumming that often sounds straight out of a Gang of Four record. Even as great as they are individually, Paramore has never sounded better as a unit than they do on After Laughter. Every song is driven by the three members playing off one another’s strengths, like on the chorus of “Told You So” where Williams’ vocals bounce along York’s guitar part, or how York and Farro propel guest Aaron Weiss’ drifting monologue on “No Friend”. For all the tribulations that Paramore experienced on their way to record After Laughter, the band seems like they’re having a blast, and it’s easy to get swept up in the optimism they exude on every track. – Ryan Gibbs
4. Jay-Z – 4:44
Among its numerous blessings, last year’s Lemonade blessed us with the highest stakes Jay Z has faced since he came out of retirement. To start, No I.D. takes over sole producing duties for 4:44, and in a short period when Beyoncé, her sister, and her husband all put out masterpieces, the producer nearly emerges as the MVP of this family feud. Meanwhile, HOV seems more focused and determined than anytime since 2003. The highlights are two early tracks: “Smile,” a heartwarming tribute to Gloria Carter’s homosexuality, sampling Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” enters the canon of all-time great tracks about mothers, while “The Story of OJ” reacts brilliantly to the infamous “I’m not black; I’m OJ” over Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” even if Jay getting excited about his children inheriting his real estate investments might not have been the retort we were wishing for. – Joey Daniewicz
3. SZA – CTRL
2017 has been an amazing year for female debut studio albums and no one can possibly top that more than SZA. CTRL, her debut album, is a beautiful raw confessional that transcends genres. It’s somehow raw and authentic, dreamy and lilting, and brutally honest all at the same time. SZA deftly shows her mastering of a neo-soul, R&Bish sound, pushing it to new frontiers and past all genre expectations. Standout tracks like “Prom” and “Love Galore” show SZA’s prowess as songwriter and singer. SZA and CTRL have received five nominations at this year’s Grammy Awards, and honestly? This album is so amazing and so tightly created that they deserve every one. – Katie Gill
2. Lorde – Melodrama
With 2013’s “Royals,” Lorde introduced herself to the world as a bold 16-year-old unafraid to give her listeners an unfiltered glimpse of teenage life. On her debut album Pure Heroine, she painted lurid, but artful pictures that seemed like scenes out of a coming-of-age novel, full of fights and fast-paced nights with friends. Melodrama delivers all of this intensity with even more grace. Using the backdrop of a house party, Lorde dives into the myriad of emotions that define what it’s like to be young and alive, notably making herself more vulnerable by talking about romance in a way she hasn’t before. Whether she’s “dancing with [her] shoes off” in “Homemade Dynamite” or having an existential crisis while “cleaning up the champagne glasses” in “Sober II (Melodrama),” she finds ways to express feelings everybody has felt with phrases nobody has heard before, and that’s the magic of Melodrama. – Brittany Menjivar
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
After Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed and innovative To Pimp a Butterfly, it was hard to guess where he would go next, but we should have known he was just going to get better. The simple, one-word song titles of DAMN. are effective at landing a punch: each word, fully capitalized and punctuated indicates a certainty in belief that we can hear in Lamar’s songwriting and delivery. This album has made its way to number one on our list, because besides its near technical perfection of skill, it is an example of an artist – a single, unique voice – that is demanding to be heard. It’s not demanding by force, but rather just by sheer existence: we couldn’t ignore Lamar if we tried. While many albums in our top five, or top ten, are there because of revelations of and admiration for new levels of talent from those artists, Lamar’s album is doing something else. We knew he was exceedingly talented, with his last two official releases increasing his fame and critical acclaim immensely, but with DAMN. We have official confirmation that he can be consistently skilled, and can evolve to fit what the music landscape needs at any moment – maybe before it even knows it needs it.
The album’s most vulnerable and surprising track is “FEAR,” and when it appears near the end of the album is when DAMN. shows itself to be much more complex than we already thought, as the song ties nearly every track together. In the song, Lamar traces various fears – of his Mom as a child, of dying as a teenager (“’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17”) and now of losing his achievements and stability (“shock value of my success put bolts in me/ all this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?”) He writes in callbacks to several of the previous songs – a reference to Rihanna (guest on “LOYALTY”), to stand-outs “DNA,” “HUMBLE,” and the repeated album phrase “What happens on Earth stays on Earth.” It’s a flash of light, a glimpse right into Lamar’s inner mind and it’s fascinating. The quick deep dive into the man and the artist’s mind and heart reveals that there is even more beyond this that Lamar has to offer – DAMN. is an achievement, but is still just another layer pulled back, and another step forward in a sure-to-be long career, despite the finality of its punctuation. – Beth Winchester